by Konstantinos Karikis
Should one attempt to summarise all four days of this Public Broadcasters conference in one phrase, one thing is certain: no matter how hard one tries, one cannot!
For the past 41 years representatives of Public Broadcasters from every corner of the world have been gathering annually in order to spend four days together. Four days full of ideas, reflections, experiments both successful and not so successful, productions full of innovative vibes, but also projects inundated with clichés: INPUT, hosted this year in Thessaloniki, the capital of the Greek north, from 7 to 11 May, is NOT your typical «Public Relations» convention. It does not look like a typical congress of the …«Party» of Public Broadcasters where after a boring string of speeches repeating themselves on the absolute necessity of the very existence of Public TVs, and after large portions of self-confirmation, the attendees will elect the new «Central Committee», they will sing the «anthem of the party» and will dedicate themselves to drinking cocktails by the pool at sunset. Nothing of the kind. Actually, attendees are not elected, they are not even proper «delegates»…
INPUT is the biggest global showcase of publicly funded television productions with the motto «Storytelling in the Public Interest». TV shows, mainly documentaries and dramas, sometimes made according to traditional “recipes”, sometimes realising more avant-garde conceptions of doubtful effectiveness. That is the very quality that makes Public TVs unique: experimenting is not a marginal occupation of eccentric minds forgotten in some dark offices along a corridor. It is an everyday battle our organisations fight in order to keep in pace with each and every society whose needs we are meant to address; the society that ultimately funds us.
And, as it may be expected, to follow, chronicle, decode and narrate to audiences in every country the events that change history. Something that the Colombian series Camino Esperanza attempts. A rather weak approach of the peace process in the country that despite the at times frustrating backtracking still remains alive. A rather dull and propaganda infused TV road-trip in a country that is still trying to appreciate peace, before anything else. In spite of its many flaws, the show remains an honest attempt of RTVC to create «Television WITH the Public», including some touching moments such as the breathtaking narration of the ex-rebel trying to lead a life in peace.
The above mentioned features (audience in the role of co-creator and narration of a history-changing chain of events) can also be easily traced in the superb and inspiring #MyEscape (WDR/DW). For 90 breathtaking minutes, refugees from various countries tell us the stories of their passage to Europe. The creators only intervene in order to edit their narrations and videos shot on their mobiles: the moments of distress inside the boats, the near drowning before they are finally saved by the Greek coastguard, the horrors of the camp lying in the middle of the Libyan desert brutally controlled by gangs of human traffickers. Refugees and immigrants are not mere extras in another TV tear-jerker, they are co-creators. They record their individual stories on their mobile phones, they trust them to the German creators and the result is gripping.
If classic TV narration slowly succumbs to the «participatory» production style, the frenzy of Social Media is probably the biggest temptation trying to «seduce» the… Old Ladies. The situation here is much more complicated. Are we ever going to beat Facebook? The answer is «Never». «They’ve got the algorithm, you just can’t beat the algorithm ». So, what is the future for Public Televisions confronting a Social Network so mighty that for a large part of the earth’s population is considered to be their only daily trip to cyber-space and it actually IS the Internet for them? «You produce stuff exclusively for this and other new platforms» is the emphatic answer of Muslim Alim, the «star» of the «Public Broadcasters and the Super Platforms» panel, Senior Producer of the celebrated BBC’s «The Social». «Young audiences out there consider traditional TV less and less relevant to them, as they find what they’re looking for more and more in Social Networks. So, the only way for BBC to keep in touch with them is to offer original content THROUGH Social Media». Why not invest in new social media talents and offer them creative space on traditional platforms? «Because we did it, we thrived and then it peacefully died out» is the answer. In other words, everyone to his trade and the «YouΤuber» …on YouTube and not on BBC One. «Does that mean traditional TV and radio are in danger?» is the reasonable question and the answer is «Definitely not». Co-existence of traditional media with new platforms is the future, every new thing will supplement the old ones and nothing will completely replace or be replaced. «What about all the platforms falling all the time from the sky, coming out of nowhere? Isn’t that a permanent headache?» «It is. But Facebook offers us some solution to this problem. They spend so much on getting their hands on every new little feature of every possible competitor that we really …don’t actually need to do much…»
But Facebook is not the only mega-platform changing the rules of the game. A crucial part is also played by Netflix. The more this super-videostore of the Internet expands, the more programmes it needs. The labyrinth of Copyright laws and the habit of many studios to move shows across platforms, brings this new colossus of Home Entertainment more often at the doorstep of Public Televisions in order to buy content. The money is good, the audience spread across the globe, yet one cannot sign a contract with Netflix unless one practically surrenders every tiny possibility of profiting of one’s product in the future. Moreover, if you wish to find out how your product has performed or which part of the global audience it has attracted the most, it is out of the question! Data is being kept a well-hidden secret of Netflix and practically those who sell, eventually forget about their product. Long story short, it is a great temptation with plenty of «grey areas», muddling the landscape and causing a headache to sales departments’ executives.
There no Grey Areas though on the issue of Dramatic Doping, known as «sensationalism»: Close-ups to faces ready to break down, cameras zooming in on human pain, background music aiming to dictate feelings. In «We and Them» session we watch the conflict between two diametrically opposite perceptions of documentary making. On the one hand, the Danish «Behind The Veil of the Mosques» (DR) shot with hidden cameras, chilling music trying to «wake-up» viewers showing large mosques as the incubator of extreme Islamism and fanaticism. The emotive images, the constant anxiety on the faces of the two «secret reporters» and the creepy music leave no doubt. Here, something really bad is happening, namely, the weaving of a threat against the West. Yet, the audience does not seem convinced. The Danish manage to enrage the room, and there comes a barrage of comments: «You focus on few particular cases and spread the word of a dominant threat – the way you use music, it’s obvious you ’re trying to impose the idea that something really bad is happening right in front of our eyes – in our country we also have dozens of Muslims but extremism still remains a rare phenomenon. Could it be that your country has this problem and the documentary misleads the public by focusing on marginal phenomena?» are only a few of them.
On the other hand, the American «Pervert Park» (PBS), a shocking narration of the daily life in a new type of post-prison facility in Florida State, US, for sexual offenders. A difficult theme, «human monsters» in a hard-to-swallow documentary that hits a nerve. While TV news editors succumb to the temptation of sensationalism by adding background music, PP creators dismiss every recipe of the kind: No zooming in on a pedophile’s or rapist’s face, cameras remain steady, and we do not hear a single note of music, apart from the moments when the Park residents themselves play some in a recreational meeting. A brutally honest recording that only in the end winks to the audience by presenting real-life numbers exhibiting the extremely low proportion of re-lapsing offenders the Sunny State has achieved through modern post-prison policies, PP concludes ….
Still, Public Broadcasters are not just for experiments and novelties: they are here for popular, mainstream, TV spectacle. They are here for quality dramas, they are here for big television events, such as «Blackout» (SRF), created by the Swiss. A total of 9 hours (broadcast in segments) on a (hypothetical) power blackout that leaves the whole of Central Europe without electricity for days, causing unprecedented chaos. Fiction embroidered on a documentary-style canvas, with real-life protagonists (e.g. an actual network technician) narrating the line of events and how they – supposedly – have evolved through the days that half of Europe is left without electric power. Thorough scientific research, close cooperation with civil protection authorities, a fascinating result. A TV that is awakening and causes reflection, an eye-opening TV, a TV that makes society think and debate.
So, what defines Public TV on the planet today? Is it the mirror in which we can see clearly the brutal reality surrounding us? Is it the new big production lab of Netflix? Is it the most honest friend and best supporter (morally and financially) of the Independent Producer and Documentary Director? Is it the ideal ground for every novelty and experiment to be properly tested? Is it the tool through which societies deal with the unspeakable, throw away the veil of silence and confront their dark side? Is it the «pill» of (sometimes necessary) collective social «doping» for the healing of old wounds and injuries?
Actually, it is all of the above and much more that could not fit into a hectic schedule of four days, a «Greek Room» open to the general public and three session rooms working simultaneously.
It is this very quality of being able to stretch their glance on the full spectrum of human activity that makes Public Broadcasters both precious and… dangerous. And if memories of the authoritarian closure of Hellenic Broadcasting Corporation ERT – only as far back in time as 2013 – are not enough to remind us of the «threat» our organisations pose, the irony of a new closure, overhasty but still a product of a long political debate that almost overthrew the Israeli Coalition Government (news that broke while INPUT was taking place) clearly shows that in the eyes of particular ruling powers, Public Broadcasters face the existential peril of appearing to be extremely dangerous.